dir. Ted Demme (2001)
This film, which turned out to be Ted Demme’s (1963-2002) last, Blow, proved to be a pretty decent mainstream Hollywood bio-pic. Its subject is George Jung, “the man who established the American cocaine market in the 1970’s”.
The film was not really anything overly special, but none too shabby, either.
Demme envisions Jung’s life as the classic American success story/tragedy, an innovative businessman who discovers a new market, has to buck the system to make his business flourish, and ultimately gets rich. Jung is a sympathetic character for Demme, despite the fact that he is claiming to have essentially ignited the drug trade into the massive “illegal” industry that it became. It’s a stark and interesting contrast with Traffic (2000), Hollywood’s big “drug” film from the previous year, which was much more centered on the “problems” of drugs. Blow pretty much glamorizes Jung and his lifestyle, particularly in its initial splash, and maybe Demme saves his harshest criticism of Jung for his fading lack of fashion sense as he enters the late 80’s and middle age.
Johnny Depp is good as Jung. As his empire unravels due to betrayals and arrests, Demme never casts a negative light on his actions or motivations. In fact, in his final drug bust, he is set up by former friends who ultimately sympathize with him, feeling guilty for stabbing him in the back. And his motivation for getting in on the final scheme is to get enough money together to take care of his daughter and start a new life. He is portrayed as a family man, almost all-American, not a criminal.
In fact, Jung’s relationship with his father is classic Hollywood stuff, boy and his dad, right out of the late fifties/early sixties (perhaps not ironically, the period in which the boyhood scenes flash back to). Ray Liotta plays Jung’s father, who never judges him for his choices. He claims not to understand Jung’s career, but admires his son’s success, due in part to his own failures to eke out a living for his family. Liotta’s character is highly sympathetic and thusly, his compassionate view of his son is shared with the audience.
It’s melodrama with a coke straw.
The film features an good performance by Paul Reubens as drug-dealing hair salon queen and a dull performance by Penelope Cruz as a Columbian trophy wife, who is humanized only after she has crashed and burned and morphed into a typical suburban housewife.
The film is fairly well-made and entertaining, but gains its most thought-provoking aspects from its ironic use of mainstream Hollywood narrative and style to idealize a person whose lifestyle is clearly counterposed to mainstream American ideals. In that sense, this film is almost radical and definitely partially subversive.